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- A Bit of Old China - 3/3 -


thoroughly engrafted on our nation, and nor cedar-wood, nor scarlet, nor hyssop, nor clean birds, nor ewes of the first year, nor measures of fine flour, nor offerings of any sort, shall cleanse us for evermore.

Let us turn to pleasanter prospects - the Joss House, for instance, one of the several temples whither the Chinese frequently repair to propitiate the reposeful gods. It is an unpretentious building, with nothing external to distinguish its facade from those adjoining, save only a Chinese legend above the door. There are many crooks and turns within it; shrines in a perpetual state of fumigation adorn its nooks and corners; overhead swing shelves of images rehearsing historical tableaux; there is much carving and gilding, and red and green paint. It is the scene of a perennial feast of lanterns, and the worshipful enter silently with burnt-offerings and meat-offerings and drink-offerings, which they spread before the altar under the feet of some colossal god; then, with repeated genuflections, they retire. The thundering gong or the screaming pipes startle us at intervals, and white-robed priests pass in and out, droning their litanies.

At this point the artist suggests refreshments; arm in arm we pass down the street, surfeited with sight-seeing, weary of the multitudinous bazaars, the swarming coolies, the boom of beehive industry. Swamped in a surging crowd, we are cast upon the catafalque of the celestial dead. The coffin lies under a canopy, surrounded by flambeaux, grave offerings, guards and musicians.

Chinatown has become sufficiently acclimatized to begin to put forth its natural buds again as freely as if this were indeed the Flowery Land. The funeral pageant moves, - a dozen carriages preceded by mourners on foot, clad in white, their heads covered, their feet bare, their grief insupportable, so that an attendant is at hand to sustain each mourner howling at the wheels of the hearse. An orchestra heads the procession; the air is flooded with paper prayers that are cast hither at you to appease the troubled spirit. They are on their way to the cemetery among the hills toward the sea, where the funeral rites are observed as rigorously as they are on Asian soil.

We are still unrefreshed and sorely in need of rest. Overhead swing huge balloon lanterns and tufts of gold-flecked scarlet streamers, - a sight that maketh the palate of the hungry Asiatic to water, for within this house may be had all the delicacies of the season, ranging from the confections of the fond suckling to funeral bakemeats. Legends wrought in tinsel decorate the walls. Here is a shrine with a vermilion-faced god and a native lamp, and stalks of such hopelessly artificial flowers as fortunately are unknown in nature. Saffron silks flutter their fringes in the steams of nameless cookery - for all this is but the kitchen, and the beginning of the end we aim at.

A spiral staircase winds like a corkscrew from floor to floor; we ascend by easy stages, through various grades of hunger, from the economic appetite on the first floor, where the plebeian stomach is stayed with tea and lentils, even to the very housetop, where are administered comforting syrups and a menu that is sweetened throughout its length with the twang of lutes, the clash of cymbals, and the throb of the shark-skin drum.

Servants slip to and fro in sandals, offering edible birds'-nests, sharks'-fins, and beche de mer, - or are these unfamiliar dishes snatched from some other kingdom? At any rate, they are native to the strange people who have a little world of their own in our midst, and who could, if they chose, declare their independence tomorrow.

We see everywhere the component parts of a civilization separate and distinct from our own. They have their exists and their entrances; their religious life and burial; their imports, exports, diversions, tribunals, punishments. They are all under the surveillance of the six companies, the great six-headed supreme authority. They have laws within our laws that to us are sealed volumes. * * *

After supper we leaned from the high balcony, among flowers and lanterns, and looked down upon the street below; it was midnight, yet the pavements were not deserted, and there arose to our ears a murmur as of a myriad humming bees shut in clustering hives; close about us were housed near twenty thousand souls; shops were open; discordant orchestras resounded from the theaters; in a dark passage we saw the flames playing upon the thresholds of infamy to expel the evil shades.

Away off in the Bay in the moonlight glimmered the ribbed sail of a fishing-junk, and the air was heavy with an indefinable odor which to this hour puzzles me; but it must be attributed either to sink or sandalwood - perchance to both!

"It is a little bit of old China, this quarter of ours," said the artist, rising to go. And so it is, saving only a noticeable lack of dwarfed trees and pale pagodas and sprays of willowy bamboo; of clumsy boats adrift on tideless streams; of toy-like tea-gardens hanging among artificial rocks, and of troops of flat-faced but complaisant people posing grotesquely in ridiculous perspective.


A Bit of Old China - 3/3

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